Up@dawn 2.0

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Happy Darwin Day!

From: Dr. Oliver
To: Atheism & Philosophy Class of 2012
You've been a wonderful class. May our mutual understanding continue to evolve. Happy Darwin Day!

Happy Darwin Day from the American Humanist Association and the International Darwin Day Foundation!


  1. "In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God.— I think that generally (& more and more so as I grow older) but not always, that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind." - Charles Darwin


    Not trying to beat this horse into the ground,just thought it was interesting.

  2. It's very interesting, and a good reality check for "atheist fundamentalists" like Dawkins. But don't overlook the immediately preceding lines:

    "What my own views may be is a question of no consequence to any one except myself.— But as you ask, I may state that my judgment often fluctuates. Moreover whether a man deserves to be called a theist depends on the definition of the term: which is much too large a subject for a note."

  3. Paraphrase for what Darwin said: "While I do not know with certainty that a God does not exist, I certainly do not believe that one does."

    No one can prove a negative. In this sense, we all have to be technically agnostic about any number of things. But in practice, how much time do you spend worrying about whether there are fairies hiding in the garden?

  4. < how much time do you spend worrying about whether there are fairies hiding in the garden?>

    Not near as much time as many athiests do thinking about God. Which says a lot, I think.

  5. I agree, it says a lot. But I'll bet I don't think it says what you think it does, judging by your writings so far.

    Let me give you a hint about why we spend more time thinking about God: how many little girls had their clitoris' excised based on the supposed dictates of garden fairies?

  6. I've also been struck by the irony that atheists and humanists tend to think more about "God" than many or most theists. It's akin to the irony of "God-intoxicated" Spinoza's excommunication.

    But what do we think about, when we think about God? Many of us do think more about "God's children" than about the hypothetical entity we do not believe in.

    And many of us think about the actual children whose indoctrination may or may not rise to the level of "abuse," but whose mental freedom is definitely compromised by adults who insist on drilling them from their earliest years in "what we believe."

    1. Agreed. We never get to deal directly with a god, we only get to deal with the fallout of belief in a god. Whether gods exist or not, believers certainly do.

  7. Nagy,
    Since you essentially clinched what I decided to do my midterm project on, could you do me a favor and weigh in on whether or not you find the following statement compatible with your understanding of agnosticism and atheism?

    "I cannot know for certain whether or not any gods exist. But based on the available evidence, I find no compelling reason to believe that they do."

  8. I would say that the main difference between the terms ‘agnostic’ and ‘atheist’ in regards to the above statement would be that the “I cannot know” part is explicit in the word ‘agnostic’ while it is only, at its very best, implicit in the word ‘atheist’. I know of too many atheists who see the lack of evidence for a God as sufficient reasoning for their being certain that there is not one, while every agnostic will agree that it is ultimately a matter of uncertainty.

  9. Interesting. All that the second part is attesting to is the state of my own belief. Should I stipulate that "I cannot know" the status of my own belief?

    We seem to be coming to the conversation with some very different ideas about atheists. While you know of "too many" atheists who express certainty that there is no God, I don't know of a single one who would say anything like that. Not Hitchens, not Dawkins, not Harris, not Dennett, not even PZ. Certainly I would unreservedly endorse the statement that I wrote above, which would make me an agnostic atheist. And I see absolutely no conflict in being both.

  10. And again, by your apparent definition of agnostic, *everything* would have to be a matter of uncertainty. While I have already agreed that this may be a fine stance to hold in principle, you must be a nervous wreck from a practical standpoint ;-)

  11. Hi, Nagy,

    I can't quite get a handle on the sincerity of your questions. Maybe you can help me out here. What, specifically, are you inferring with this statement?

    "Not near as much time as many athiests (sic) do thinking about God. Which says a lot, I think."

    David and I and been trying to answer your questions but we still seem to be going in circles. I could be wrong but now it seems you're asking these questions rhetorically. Am I reading you incorrectly?

    I'm just trying to get a line on what exactly is going on here.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Maybe I left a little too much to be inferred there, but I was just trying to point out that, as I see it, the idea of god is not equivocal to the idea of garden fairies. It goes back to my claim that god by its very nature can not be proven, since no human would even know what to look for if proof of god could be found. A fairy, however, is predefined by some pretty distinct features, and so could at least theoretically someday be proven to exist if they in fact did. It is for this reason, that the god claim is so unworkable, that many great thinkers have always struggled with a logical explanation, while far less seem to give serious thought to angels or demons, which would be more analogous to fairies in this case. That’s what I meant by saying atheists think about god a lot. I wasn’t trying to be insincere, just stating that people discuss it and think about it because it is an impossible concept to ever resolutely agree on with any degree of certainty. If you say there are fairies in my garden, I can go sit out in it, and after enough time of not seeing anything, would come to the conclusion that you were probably making things up. But if you say there is a god, where would I even begin to look to find out if it was true? - it seems the speculation would go on forever. That’s what I was trying to get at, in so many words.

      A sincere question: “What does an atheist see to be the fundamental difference between themselves and someone who claims to be agnostic?”

    3. "It goes back to my claim that god by its very nature can not be proven, since no human would even know what to look for if proof of god could be found. A fairy, however, is predefined by some pretty distinct features, and so could at least theoretically someday be proven to exist if they in fact did."

      I think this is the problem. You are treating God differently than other claims, and I'm not sure why. We have no knowledge of the "very nature" of God, any more than we do of the "very nature" of fairies. Both are merely concepts that have been predefined by people, as you say. Both have been defined to have "pretty distinct" features, by all sorts of people. They are both cut from the same whole cloth, namely people's imagination.

    4. If it sounds like I'm not really grasping the distinction that you're trying to make between God and fairies, it's because I don't. If I were to define fairies in such a way as to make any direct knowledge of them impossible, I presume that this would place them in the same category that you seem to insist upon placing God. But this would not make fairies any more or less likely to actually exist. I would have just placed them outside of our knowledge, by merely defining them to be so. This is exactly what people have done with the concept of God, is it not? I fail to see what is so impressive about that.

    5. I can’t help but feel like I’m drifting dangerously close to a “Who would win in a fight, a ham sandwich or an omelet” type of discussion, as I don’t express belief in a god either. But let me try once more to explain where I see a difference and then I’ll leave it alone: The difference between a hypothetical fairy and a hypothetical god is that a fairy is necessarily a particular object grounded in the physical realm, while god is not necessarily a particular object nor grounded in the physical realm. If this doesn’t make sense, then I’ll just assume that I’m not making any. But I don’t think this is of too much importance anyway. I think the important thing is that we both agree that there are absolute limits to our knowledge, that our perspectives can only allow us to see so much. It seems like where we are diverging is in what we consider to be the most correct attitude to take towards such a reality. I think everything should be allowed outside of my ‘box’ of knowledge, because all I am concerned about is my little box and what I can know. This box of knowledge is what is sacred, and god, in my opinion, doesn’t belong. But the point I’ve been trying to make is that people believe things without knowing, even hardcore positivists. Belief and knowledge are obviously not even close to the same thing for some people, and knowledge is the only gate that I’m concerned about keeping god from entering. I could care less about what people believe, even myself - its just too fickle to worry too much about. I guess I try my best to blur the line between what I believe and what I know to such a point that I only believe what I know. So I just say the only thing that I do know when it comes to god: “I don’t know”.

    6. To expand, in case I wasn't coherent - If I were to say anything other than “I don’t know” (“I’m agnostic”) to the god question, I would feel like I was compromising the principal of 'only believing what you know' as well as misrepresenting how I feel. I do not know if there is no god, so I don’t believe it.

    7. This comment has been removed by the author.

    8. Nagy, I think I might have pinpointed the source of your confusion:

      "...a fairy is necessarily a particular object grounded in the physical realm..."

      I can see why you might have ham sandwiches and omelets fighting.

      I'm gonna let David handle this one.

      (Last comment deleted due to typo)

    9. Actually, I'm going to let this one go. I believe I've hammered on it enough.

      Or do I *know* that I have?

    10. I'm sure there's fertile ground here to plow up on the difference between knowledge and belief (it's really just a matter of degrees of certainty, right?) but I'll save some of that for my midterm blog posts.

  12. Fair enough, Nagy, and thanks for clearing that up.

    I just didn't want to waste time on someone who was simply yanking my chain.

    We are all agnostic about fairies, demons, Santa, gods, and anything else that has a supernatural status. The question you can ask is: do we have knowledge (gnostic) of these claims? No. Then you're agnostic to these claims.

    The second question to ask is do I believe or willing to believe any of these claims without knowledge? You're not atheistic to Santa because Santa usually doesn't fall under the category of gods. You're not atheistic to David's garden fairies because garden fairies don't fit the term either. Belief in gods fall under the general category of theism.

    The negation of a word can be expressed with an "a." So when we want to negate the BELIEF in gods (theism), we add an "a" to it. So, if you didn't BELIEVE in gods, you would be atheistic. You can claim, as David and I do, to be agnostic atheists. We neither have KNOWLEDGE of gods nor have BELEIF in gods. There can be confusion here because people either don't understand the terms our unknowingly use them carelessly without considering their established meanings.

    But what happens during communication with others, most atheists leave the "agnostic" part off when describing themselves because it's simply understood because most consider belief contingent upon knowledge. Certainty doesn't have to play into it. Probability works just fine.

    Atheists are not debating or arguing against KNOWLEDGE of God or gods because that would be absurd (there is none), we argue against the BELEIF in gods, which is a human construct supported by blind faith because there is zero evidence of gods to be considered as knowledge. That why David and I put gods and garden fairies in the same metaphysical boat.

    Thanks for the sincerity and I hope this helps.

  13. 'Only believing what you know' really won't take you very far in this world, will it? Maybe we're playing semantics, but we don't know a thing about tomorrow or the day after. And yet, I insist on believing that I and we have a future. I must believe that. Why else haul out of bed at 5 am on a cold and dark winter's morn? A belief is a platform for action, and I want to act prospectively. So, I form beliefs embodying expectations and hopes. They may be confounded, I may be disappointed, but at least I won't be a mere spectator of my own life.

    That, anyway, is my take on "Will to Believe" and the trouble with W.K. Clifford's "ethics of belief."



    1. I consider the Clifford-James argument my ticket to clarity.

      I'm still wrestling with the same issues when you started me on this journey a year or so back. The good news is my questions and answers are (hopefully) getting more refined.

      I keep these two guys on my desk at all times and are due a fresh going-over.

      I'll scare you up a blog post with my new-found "conclusion" and see what you think.